Anne Winkler Morey remembers sitting on the porch of her rooming house in Dinkytown in the summer of 1983, hatching plans for a new group to help mobilize opposition to U.S. military intervention in Central America.
The activists had little money when they set up shop in the basement of the Newman Center near the University of Minnesota. Buying a typewriter in 1984 for $150 was a cause for celebration, she recalls.
Over 24 years, the grass-roots group morphed into the Resource Center of the Americas with a $2 million budget, a building in south Minneapolis, a spectacular mural, a popular bookstore, library, coffee shop, a slew of Spanish classes and ambitious programs to promote immigrant rights.
Today the building stands empty, the resource center shattered by a financial crisis. The future hinges on the sale of the building and new, perhaps lowered, expectations.
"I am convinced they will be able to continue their work and move on after they have sold the building," said Ninth Ward City Council Member Gary Schiff. "I am a big fan of the Resource Center of the Americas." He thinks it's also essential to preserve the mural.
"They did a lot to help the Latino community in Minnesota, " says Alberto Monserrate, president of the Latino Communications Network, publisher of La Prensa, the state's largest Spanish-language newspaper. While he didn't agree with the center's support for some leftist movements in Latin America, "I'm sad they closed."
The center was born when the United States was backing the Contras, a rebel movement in Nicaragua, and was also supplying military aid to the rightist El Salvador government, under attack by leftist rebels.
Protest groups sprung up nationwide. In the Twin Cities, church and campus organizations held meetings alongside other groups opposed to U.S. policy.
Events took place daily, sometimes at the same time.
"We wanted to coordinate and build a coalition," said Morey, who is now a local professor of Latin American history.
The Central America Resource Center held week-long events, culminating in mass marches against U.S. intervention that drew thousands.
It built a one-of-a-kind library with more than 1,000 books that became a prime resource for students and teachers.
Center drew many in
Pam Costain came to the center as executive director after she and her husband, Larry Weiss, and their two children spent 1988 in Nicaragua working on a humanitarian project.
"It paid really poorly," she said. "I thought I'd be there for two years and get a real job, and 14 years later, I was still there."
Her husband became a key leader within the center, and Costain helped point the organization in a new direction. Then times changed.
"There was a negotiated settlement in El Salvador and there was a change in governments in Nicaragua," said Costain, who is now chair of the Minneapolis School Board. "A lot of organizations around, like us, went out of business. Our board said ... the real relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, which was unfair, was going to continue."
Renamed the Resource Center of the Americas, it began to tackle issues such as globalization and helped expose the poverty of Mexican workers near the U.S. border. It encouraged anti-sweatshop committees at local high schools and developed lesson plans to teach immigrant students about their cultures.
Buoyed by foundation grants, it moved into a building at 3019 Minnehaha Av. after a $1.5 million renovation.
A two-story ceramic mural by Mexican and U.S. artists was unveiled in 2001 as the center became a key part of the revitalized neighborhood. "It went from being a really wonderful organization of the left and the progressives to a true community institution," Costain said.
Teresa Ortiz headed a workers rights center helping local immigrants. Octavio Ruiz Balam Yaxkin, who wrote a Mexican history curriculum for the center, became director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition.
Unraveling of a movement
But trouble was afoot. After Costain left in 2002, the center went through five directors.
In early 2007, interim director Kathleen McKown found big problems. "They had used up all their reserves," she said. There were no improprieties, she said, but the accounting system was poor, and after several years of deficits, foundations were reluctant to give.
"We called all the members," McKown said. "It turned out it was a very weak membership base. Most of the people had become members in order to take cheap Spanish classes and were not really committed to the organization per se."
Indeed, says Costain, it got too professional: "I think we became over-reliant on staff. We did not do enough to bring the membership along."
The center also remained a largely white group even as Latin American immigrants flooded into the Twin Cities.
Then there's the Iraq war. "A lot of activist attention shifted to the wars in the Middle East, and rightfully so," said Mary Turck, who once ran the center's much-used website.
Talk of restarting smaller
With the sale of the building, advertised at $1.3 million, the center's board of directors hopes to pay off more than $400,000 in debt.
There's an interested buyer, says board chair Colleen Aho, and the board has met with key members about what to do with the remaining money. There is talk of restarting on a smaller scale or donating the funds to like-minded causes.
Board member Dick Senese, former state DFL chair, says perhaps the center can become a public advocacy group. "There's a really rich legacy of this organization," he says. "If it doesn't continue into the future, people should be damn proud of it."
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382